May 20, 2019

Planting Bulbs is Patience with a Purpose

Oriental lilies should be planted in the autumn to achieve the best bloom the following summer.

Faith Pineo Photo | Oriental lilies should be planted in the autumn to achieve the best bloom the following summer.

• By Janine Pineo •

Autumn is the season of enlightenment.

I seem to discover that every year while I am cleaning up the sorry remains of yet another vegetable garden, sniffing the rather putrid odor of frost-nipped rotten tomatoes and tugging on stubborn pumpkin vines that turn slimier the longer you yank.

This season is the first step toward next year’s garden, when the plants we now so lovingly “put to bed” will awaken with the first hint of warmth.

Perhaps that’s why I find such great delight in cultivating flowering bulbs, which can guide your way from late winter to autumn.

In my garden, the harbinger of spring is a courageous plant that tickles me every time I see it: the crocus.


The stripes make Pickwick a standout crocus variety.

Janine Pineo Photo | The stripes make Pickwick a standout crocus variety.

I decided to add to my somewhat scant collection of crocus (one can never have too many) with two types of Crocus chrysanthus. Ladykiller is a striking combination of white with heavy splashes of dark violet. Blue Pearl is a bit quieter, its white petals gently blushed soft lavender. Both varieties are snow crocus and not to be confused with C. vernus, the giant crocus that blossoms later and grows an inch or more taller. Giant crocus extend the crocus season, however, and my favorite is one introduced in 1925, the elegant Pickwick, a purple-and-white, pin-striped variety whose small stature (4 to 5 inches) belies its attention-grabbing abilities.

A subtler spring flower is Fritillaria (fri-tih-lair-ee-a), a bulb I knew little of before I saw it in a co-worker’s bouquet. For the past couple of years, the F. meleagris in my garden has been a delight to behold, its purple-checked bells nodding gracefully above grasslike foliage.

To my newly expanded perennial bed, I’m adding a few more of this centuries-old plant (try 1572), also called guinea hen flower or checkered lily, along with another variety, F. pallidiflora. Found growing wild in Siberia at 9,000 feet above sea level, this sturdy species sports pale yellow, bell-shaped flowers on stems that rise 2 feet above blue-green foliage.

Another curious variety that has found a home in my garden is Erythronium (eh-ri-throw-nee-um), more commonly called trout lily or dogtooth violet. Don’t let the common names fool you; the several species of Erythronium I’ve seen have gracefully delicate blossoms floating above bold foliage. I think I might have discovered the “dogtooth” designation when I planted E. “Pagoda”: With a few minor variations, all five bulbs looked like dog teeth.

Erythronium is a shade-loving plant, and the genus is almost exclusively a North American native, except for E. dens-canis, a Eurasian species.

A spring bulb from which I’ve had excellent results is Narcissus “Tete-a-Tete.” It’s a miniature daffodil that grows only 6 to 8 inches tall and has several flowers per stem. Since I’ve seen a healthy increase in the number of plants each year, I decided to expand my miniatures with the addition of Hawera and Minnow.

Hawera, a hybrid from New Zealand that dates back to 1938, is a lemony-yellow daffodil with three to five blooms on each stem. It has been called enchanting, like a cloud of butterflies, and a picture gives credence to that description. Minnow is white-petaled with a buttercup-yellow cup, and it has been compared to a school of little fish (perhaps I’ll understand when I see it in bloom).

The bulb garden doesn’t have to end with the spring bulbs. One of the easiest bulbs is the lily, which brings new and fragrant life to the summer garden. In addition to June and July’s Asiatic lilies, I have about 20 Oriental lilies, mostly the white, intensely scented Casablanca, which performed with abandon this summer. Stargazer, a rich magenta edged in white, blossomed first, heralding the start of Casablanca throughout August.

I must have been intoxicated by the scent because I decided to add 50 more mixed Oriental lilies, not to mention some more Asiatic and tiger lilies, to my front-yard gardens. Only time will tell if anyone will be able to breathe in or out of the house next summer.

In a bid to extend my garden’s season, I planted a fall-blossoming hardy cyclamen, Cyclamen hederifolium. The foliage of this genus doesn’t arrive until after the bulb first flowers and then it stays through the winter, only to disappear in spring. The catalog warns this cyclamen is slow to establish itself — it may not even bloom the first year — but will reward the patient gardener.

That is what autumn and bulb planting are all about — patience with a purpose that sends you outside when the wind is whipping across soggy ground, where digging soon results in mud-soaked gloves that leave your fingers numb.

Every fall, when the aching muscles, sore knees, runny nose and chapped hands start to overwhelm, I ask myself why I endure it.

The answer that comes to mind stems from a chat with my nearby neighbor, Grace Bullerwell, who has lived and worked on her Hudson farm for more than 50 years. Three Saturdays ago, Grace invited me over to see her prize cabbage, and we talked for nearly an hour about life and gardening and those pesky beavers that have dammed up her pond. She recalled planting her willow (another pest, she says), her lilacs, the trees by the church and the flowers at the town hall.

Grace, you see, is a lifelong gardener, and some of her lifetime’s worth of plants are now some of my plants too: daylilies, phlox and, just three weeks ago, hydrangea.

As I drove home, I thought over our conversation and — suddenly — enlightenment came.

We endure all the aches, pains, triumphs and failures because we garden for love.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in 1996.

2012 update: Grace died several years ago, but her plant legacy lives on in my yard with her day lilies and phlox blossoming every single year. No fuss, no muss are those plants, just like Grace always was.